On the Road with Heracles

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Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘Heracles Driving Off the Cattle of Geryon’; engraving by Giulio Bonasone, sixteenth century

Middle Earth in a book title would suggest to most readers that it was about J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, and it is likely that the publisher of Graham Robb’s book had an eye on this market. Robb has taken the phrase over to describe the European realm of the ancient Celts, the group of tribal societies that arrived in France from the Upper Danube beginning around 600 BC. But the Celts had no Middle Earth. The name, which was Germanic in origin, had reached Tolkien through his work on Old and Middle English, and its diffusion to a broad public in modern times was entirely the result of his own capacious imagination.

What the Celts did have, as Robb emphasizes, were dozens of cities called Mediolanum, a name best known as the Latin for Milan in Italy but widely spread across the Celtic territories of Gaul that lay to the north. Both the popularity and the etymology of Mediolanum are shrouded in mystery. The first half of the name, understood as Latin, means “middle” or perhaps “half,” whereas the second part, on the face of it, would appear to mean “wool.” But Middle Wool or even Half Wool is certainly not Middle Earth. There is reason to think that the Celts may have understood this name as meaning “middle enclosure,” but again nothing about Middle Earth. Yet all these Mediolana, carefully positioned in the Celtic territories of Roman antiquity, seem to conjure up a secret and sacred geography. Graham Robb has now found a new and unexpected way to discover what might have been going on.

Hitherto Robb has enjoyed a solid reputation for his work on French literature (Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Arthur Rimbaud) and on the culture and history of France. Although Celtic Gaul was certainly a part of the evolution of France from antiquity onward, Robb’s new book is a bold departure from what he has done before. As he explains in his introduction, it all arose from plans for a bicycle trip to explore what was traditionally known as the Heraclean Road, the Via Heraclea. This was a legendary route that Heracles took from the southwestern part of the Iberian peninsula into continental Europe and across the Alps into Italy. One might well wonder how anyone could plan a cycling expedition over a mythical route that lacks any substantial literary or archaeological documentation, but Robb believes that he has been able to do exactly that. His book is a dense and breathless account of what he has discovered about his hero’s mythical itinerary. The thrill of his discovery sometimes overwhelms the clarity of his exposition, but author and reader alike share an exhilarating exploration of what is commonly called sacred geography.

In Greek mythology Heracles was very special. His mother was a mortal, Alcmene, whom Zeus had visited …

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